It is all about generosity
Excuse me, Mr. Purdie, can I ask you a question? I was approaching the world-famous drummer Bernard Purdie in the narrow corridor at the jazz department at New School, New York. It was difficult for me to jump in on a living legend on a first name basis. Maybe that’s a European thing. As I have written about earlier, I was attending the music program at the New School back in 1988-89, which you can read more about on the previous segments of Music Lessons Learned.
Purdie looked at me: Well, sure! I gathered up my courage. He was to be my new teacher in the upcoming ensemble class during the next semester. But first and foremost he was a living legend within the field of drumming and had played on numeral all-time classic recordings.
Are you the one playing drums on Aretha Franklin’s album Amazing Grace? I asked. Yes, his face lit up in a smile.
I had listened to that album with amazement back home in Denmark numerous times throughout the years up until meeting him in person. The passion and spirit of that particular record were and still is, extremely intense and overwhelming. Now, I surely had listened to a lot of other great music too. However, I had never heard anything quite as moving as this. The message in the music is so profoundly heartfelt and at the same time, the lines between the performers and the audience, the individual vs. the collective blurred. On top of that, it is strangely crosscultural accessible even for someone who did not grow up in this kind of environment. Without knowing what it was a teenager, it felt like a direct communication between human souls.
Other recordings that have some of the same are qualities are B.B. King Live in the Cook County Jail and at Sing Sing Prison. I accidentally came across those records, as I did Aretha’s, as a teenager at the local library in the suburbs. My friends and I used to borrow all albums with a guitar on the cover dreaming of a bigger world out there.
That is some of the most powerful music that I have ever heard! I said.
He broke into a big smile, looked happy, and responded: Well, thank you! The semester had come on to a good start!
One thing that you got to give New School’s jazz program was its ability to attract an impressive cast of teachers during my stay there. Their philosophy seemed to be what happens if you bring someone with extensive experience, eg. Purdie, in a room with young musicians with lesser experience.
The interesting question in the case of someone like Purdie’s statue: what does a legend teach young musicians at a music school? How to become legendary?
Here are a few episodes as I recall them from that semester.
One day we were playing a chart of a new song that Purdie had brought in. After we had run it down a few times, he, while us playing, started removing the charts from the music stands. The music soon came to an end, and the class looked at him puzzled. Why did he take back the music?
Well, he pointed out, if you were playing at a big outdoor festival and the wind knocked over your music stand, would you stop playing then? Point taken: no, you wouldn’t! Therefore the practical advice of the day: pay attention while you have the chance!
Another day we were playing some song where I somehow had wondered up too high on the fretboard of the bass to his taste. Even if this could be a matter of artistic choice, in this case, it was probably due to lacking stylistic awareness on my behalf. When the music stopped, he turned to me: Bass means bottom! […] That’s also what I told that young man that died. He turned to one of his assistants asking: What’s his name? The assistant responded: Jaco Pastorius. Yeah, Purdie said, that guy!
For those who might not know, Pastorius was in his own right a legendary figure within the field of electric bass that was tragical killed in 1987.
Few drummers have a particular drumbeat named after themselves, but Purdie does! The “Purdie Shuffle” is a beat that most drummers in pop music in the western world are familiar with and can do a take on. Purdie immortalized it himself on Steely Dan’s track Babylon Sisters.
And luckily the moment occurred in class when we were working on the groove of a tune, and he walked over to the drums saying: Let’s bring down the tempo on this one a bit and see if I can play the Purdie shuffle on this one.
So all in all, my question is: can you teach someone to become legendary? No, I would say. Can you teach someone to handle and survive a long life in music — and maybe as a consequence of this longevity become legendary. Yes, I would say so.
In my recollection, the teaching of Purdie was all about the music, which he oozed just by his presence. But it was as much about how to get by in the music business on a practical level. First and foremost by relating and paying attention to the situations, you’re in and the people present. Being generous with yourself and sharing your knowledge and experience with others. And on top as a being a superb representation of the craft that music-making on a professional level requires.
But first and foremost: we are in this together and depend on one another!
One night I had played a gig at a Brazilian restaurant in Soho, New York. I was waiting outside on the sidewalk for a taxi with my bass and amp. A large American car pulled up, and the window rolled down. Purdie leaned over while the unique phrasing of his voice rang out: Do you need a ride? Like one senior practitioner to a junior. Like one human to the other.
It is all about generosity! Thank you, Bernard Purdie, for sharing this with us!